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Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Shopping Search Gets Smarter

Shopping search engine Dealtime, a fast-growing provider of product comparisons to consumers, has acquired Epinions, a popular and increasingly useful consumer review site.

The deal makes perfect sense. Recall that too-far-ahead-of-the-curve, overfunded Deja.com was attempting to do just that - marry the community-feedback culture of Usenet newsgroups with the ability to compare products and ultimately purchase them. Deja's message was simple enough, and it might have taken off if (a) they weren't so associated with the entrenched newsgroup culture - it was hard to explain to many people why this should suddenly be about shopping and product reviews; (b) the reading, review, and buying process was smoother; (c) the quality and reliability of user reviews had reached critical mass; (d) it was actually easy, satisfying, and economical to make a purchase online as opposed to using clicks for comparing and heading to the bricks for the actual purchase; and (e) the marketplace was more educated and "ready" for e-commerce and shopping search. That's a lot of "ifs," and Deja didn't have control of all these factors.

Now that the space has come of age, it's thriving. It just goes to show, I suppose, that the marketplace is the ultimate testing ground. You throw stuff against the wall and see if it sticks. And in this case, if it doesn't, you keep throwing until something finally does stick.

I'm probably being a little too easy on Deja. Their media budget was outrageous, and predictably wasted on diffuse slogans like "smart is beautiful" and "share what you know, learn what you don't." At a certain point they arrived at the slogan "Before you buy," but by then it was too late, with no credible business model in sight, and the nerf balls and foosball tables were duly repo'd.

And so we've come full circle and landed in a happy place, at least as far as economic efficiency and online publisher solvency is concerned. I stumbled on an old site that included a "search deja" box, giving you the choice amongst "discussions, reviews, and communities." Type "Sony TV" into the box, and it still takes you to a page of results: on Google Groups, of course! And lo and behold, Google's monetizing the search with granularly-targeted keyword text ads - and experimenting with content-targeted ads if you drill further into some of the content pages. And lest we forget, Google is also working on a shopping search engine, Froogle.

This is about to become very interesting. I know that when I go online to do product research, I may surf directly to a review site like Epinions, but I also do background research using Google's search engine. In this new age of consumer empowerment, it's the customers in the appliance store explaining the features of the products to the salespeople! Not only features, though. When you augment a product search with a background info search using a search engine, you find out stuff like where the factory is located. It's no accident that search engines like Google continue to be the entry point, aka portal, for so many consumers. People aren't just "Googling" that blind date to check up on their background, they're "Googling" the Maytag repairman... or at least his parent company.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




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